Buildings aren’t just investments in bricks and mortar they are investments in people’s lives

Paul King

Last week, I met up with Green Building Council colleagues from around the world for our annual congress. Since we launched UKGBC in 2007, and joined an international network of 26, we have experienced the most extraordinary growth, to almost 100 GBCs today. Green Building Councils across Africa, Asia and the Middle East now rub shoulders with those in America, Australia and Europe.

The diversity is breathtaking, but so is the amount we have in common. We are all industry-led – with over 25,000 company members, and we all exist solely to transform the sustainability of the built environment.

I can’t help but compare this extraordinary network to the one I used to know, when I worked at WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund, not the wrestlers). There are strong similarities and significant differences.

Firstly, the lifeblood of Green Building Councils is business – private sector campaigners, who see clear and profitable business opportunity in building a better world. But there is a more difficult difference to deal with; buildings simply don’t have the same emotive appeal of the charismatic megafauna of the conservation world, that’s tigers and pandas to you and me. Or do they?

The speaker was Cameron Sinclair, an inspirational architect and CEO (rather amusingly his business card reads “Chief Eternal Optimist”)

Early on Friday morning in Cape Town, nursing a slight hangover – the inevitable consequence of saying goodbye to so many friends from around the world the night before - I experienced one of those rare presentations that make you glad you dragged yourself out of bed, and indeed, to be alive.

The speaker was Cameron Sinclair, an inspirational architect and CEO (rather amusingly his business card reads “Chief Eternal Optimist”) of a global not-for-profit practice that focuses on rebuilding and creating wonderful places for people, in the most challenging contexts. I’m talking about rebuilding schools post earthquake in Haiti, and creating safe havens for women in African townships that help to minimise the frequency of rape. Two thirds of the way through his talk he put up a slide that said: ‘Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.”

It struck a chord, to say the least. It is hard to solicit a visceral reaction to the mundane word ‘buildings’, but he hit a nerve. And as often happens, that ricocheted around other ideas I’d been hearing from my colleagues over the previous few days.

Whether it’s bricks and mortar, or timber, straw and clay, buildings come alive when you add people. They become schools, hospitals, homes, sports stadiums, cafes, and offices. They become the places where people thrive, flourish, grow, learn and recover. Or the places where people struggle, suffer, sink into depression and sometimes die.

So what does this all mean? Put simply, buildings matter, and whether the motivations around creating better ones are financial, environmental or social, the legacy of getting them right is profound.

Paul King is chief executive of the UK Green Building Council